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Salvadoran Peace Talks Deadlock Over Military Reform

THE latest peace talks between Salvadoran government delegates and leftist rebels have stagnated around the issue of military reform, with guerrilla leaders claiming only increased United States pressure on the armed forces can break the logjam. On Sept. 18, rebels and Salvadoran government representatives concluded a fifth round of talks mediated by the United Nations, salvaging only an agreement to meet again in Mexico in early November.

``What we need is a change in the political correlation of forces, and that's possible only with the help of the US,'' says rebel negotiator Dagaberto Guti'errez.

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Since monthly talks began last May, the US-backed Salvadoran government has said a mutual cease-fire must precede any political accords. But guerrillas insist they will not lay down their arms until the government agrees to dissolve the military over time, replace security forces with a civilian police force, and punish human-rights violators inside the Army.

Since the military was implicated in the November murders of six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers, it has become more isolated politically and has received increased international criticism. Western diplomats say that if a move in the US Congress to cut Salvadoran military aid is successful, it could send reverberations through the armed forces' ranks, speeding an internal purge.

But the aid-reduction bill the US Congress is expected to vote on in coming weeks would halve the assistance only as long as rebels refrain from launching a military blitz. Since guerrilla leaders have said a resurgence of combat is ``almost inevitable,'' the cut may not significantly disturb the officer corps. Meanwhile, both sides' positions appear to have hardened. Col. Mauricio Vargas, the military's only delegate on the negotiating team, says an insurmountable obstacle to the negotiations is the rebels' demand that they negotiate with the military as equals.

``The [rebel] front insists on a vision of two armies,'' Colonel Vargas says.

``Two armies don't exist. There is an institutionalized democracy being attacked - but not by an army, by an irregular group of Marxist-Leninists.''

Vargas also accused the guerrillas of ``perpetuating a myth'' that the military graduating class of 1966, a tightly knit group known as the tandona, or big class, holds sway over the armed forces.

Rebel leaders at the talks say US military aid has not been effectively used as leverage over military officers within the tandona who they say are blocking reform.

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``The US fears that, if it forces change, the armed forces may collapse. And they see us as a crouching lion waiting to pounce on the wounded prey,'' says rebel negotiator Francisco Jovel. ``But given the international scene today, more than ever the idea that we're an enemy of the US national interest is absurd.''

Although military analysts say neither the armed forces nor the rebels can deliver a knockout blow to one another, as talks deadlock, both sides predict a resurgence of heavy fighting in coming months.

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